A former auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Rockville Centre — who was the first Latino to hold that post — has been named archbishop of Philadelphia, one of the most important positions in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.
Archbishop-elect Nelson Perez was named to the post by Pope Francis on Thursday, becoming the first Latino to head the archdiocese of 1.4 million Catholics.
“I was shocked, just absolutely shocked,” Perez said at a news conference in Philadelphia on Thursday.
Perez, 58, was born in Miami to Cuban immigrants and grew up in the Cuban-American enclave of West New York, New Jersey. He came to Long Island in 2012, and was made bishop of Cleveland five years later.
His new post is a homecoming, since he was ordained in Philadelphia in 1989 and spent years there as a priest.
Bishop John Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Centre said the diocese “and all of Long Island, remembers Archbishop Perez’s ‘Joy of the Gospel,’ his contagious sense of humor and his pastoral spirit with great fondness and with great pride as we celebrate this historic day.”
Barres predicted that because of Perez's deep spiritual life, national leadership among Latino Catholics and his rich roots in the Catholic Church of Philadelphia, he will usher in a "new and compelling era of bold evangelization.”
On Long Island, Perez, who is fluent in Spanish, was assigned to the eastern vicariate, or section, of the Island, which stretches from Bay Shore to Montauk. He assisted Barres and his predecessor, William Murphy, in duties such as overseeing confirmations, but also had a special focus on Latinos Islandwide.
In 2014, he was called on to celebrate the funeral Mass of Tom Cutinella, a 16-year-old football player at Shoreham-Wading River High School who died after a head injury suffered during a game against John Glenn High School.
Early in his ministry on Long Island, Perez nearly died in a car accident, according to Barres, and underwent a difficult rehabilitation.
When Perez recounted the story to Barres, “It was one of the most powerful and inspiring personal moments I have ever experienced with a brother bishop,” Barres said in 2017. "His experience of the Cross brought him an even deeper faith, pastoral compassion and trust in God's will working in his life.”
Perez became well-known in Long Island church circles for his down-to-earth manner, humility and sense of humor, according to church members. He lived in a Polish parish on the East End.
Analysts said Perez’s ascent to Philadelphia underscores Francis' efforts to place like-minded bishops in key positions.
Perez is replacing Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, a guiding light of traditionalists in the church who spoke out against homosexuality, same-sex marriage and abortion, often clashing publicly with the pope.
A relative newcomer on the national church scene, Perez is viewed as a moderate who has criticized President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Perez is “the kind of pastoral bishop Pope Francis is looking for," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst at Religion News Service, who noted Perez exhibited his personal, friendly approach and self-deprecating humor at the news conference Thursday.
Perez is “not somebody who wants to be in the middle of the culture wars," Reese said.
In his comments Thursday, Perez said he planned to continue Francis' vision of the church as archbishop of Philadelphia. He will be installed Feb. 18.
Chaput reached the retirement age of 75 in September. He could have stayed on several years longer, but Francis chose to replace him.
“Obviously Chaput and Francis didn’t see eye to eye on things — just two different visions of the church,” said John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries.”
Elevating someone like Perez is “typical of Francis — picking people who are off the radar and not necessarily promoting people who would be the usual candidates,” he said.
Perez said he considers Chaput, under whom he served for a brief time in Philadelphia, “a brother bishop, a friend and mentor.” Chaput gave Perez the pectoral cross he was wearing at the news conference when his elevation to auxiliary bishop in Rockville Centre was announced in 2012.
“I am deeply grateful to the Holy Father for this appointment and his confidence in me,” Perez said Thursday.